Cobb puts his sunglasses into his jacket’s inner pocket.
“So, Arthur keeps telling me it can’t be done.”
Eames can’t hide a smile, playing with the peanuts in his hands.
“Hmmm, Arthur…You still work with that stick-in-the-mud?”
“He’s good at what he does, right?”
“Oh, he’s the best. He has no imagination.”
“Not like you.”
“Listen, if you’re gonna perform inception you need imagination.”
Who’s Cobb? What’s with the sunglasses? Who’s Arthur? And Eames? Why is he eating peanuts? And what the hell is inception?
Even if you recognize the fragment above, you don’t have complete answers to these questions. Except you do. Because whatever inception is, if it requires imagination, it means you need ideas. Creativity. Curiosity, and, of course, the will to believe a new version of the truth. You have all those things. And you can use them to fill in the gaps.
Inception is a task of the mind. And how you use it makes all the difference.
The Cradle of Change
Imagine you walk down the street and see someone with an extremely fit body. You think to yourself: “I should work out. I would get abs like that.” Or you support a friend running a marathon and wonder: “Maybe I can run that far.” You read a good book and before you know it, a daring thought floats to the surface of your attention: “I could be a writer too.”
That’s inception. The cradle of change. But the message of Christopher Nolan’s hit movie is bigger than that. It’s not just “a single thought can change the world.” It’s also “a single thought can destroy a life.”
Cobb loads the gun. He and his protégé get off the the elevator.
“Listen, there’s something you should know about me. About inception. An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”
They enter the living room. Cobb’s wife sits at the table. With her back towards the duo, she finishes his speech:
“The smallest idea such as: ‘Your world is not real.’ Simple little thought that changes everything.”
Two Kinds of Seeds
Imagination is humanity’s best trait. It is also the most dangerous. It gives as much as it takes away. That’s why the seeds of imagination are always planted in pairs. The first thought is brilliant. Shiny. Crystal clear. A ray of divine creation. The one that immediately follows is dark. Malevolent. A destructive force that casts a veil of despair.
The name of that second thought is Resistance. It’s the voice that says you needn’t work out. Or that you’ll never get abs, no matter how hard you try. “Run a marathon? You? That’s even less likely than you becoming a writer.”
In The War of Art, the man who named Resistance, Steven Pressfield, writes:
“Resistance will bury you. You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
Resistance’s initial reaction is always brute force. Change feels dangerous. Even the thought of it provokes a hard “no” from your brain. It wants you to stay the same. What you’ve done so far has gotten you to this day. It’ll get you to another one, won’t it? Your brain says yes, but in truth no one can tell.
Resistance is cunning, however. Once it sees you’ve made up your mind, it won’t keep trying to dissuade you. It throws a curve ball instead.
Cobb sips on his beer. He puts it down and looks at Eames.
“Let me ask you something.”
“Have you done it before?”
Eames raises his eyebrows.
“We tried it. We got the idea in place. But it didn’t take.”
“You didn’t plant it deep enough?”
“No, it’s not just about depth. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind. It’s a very subtle art.”
A Fool’s Errand
Once you’ve had an idea, you’re only one step away from execution. But your brain knows that. The peril of change is imminent. Enter artificial complexity.
Your mind counters inception with deception. “What’s your plan?” It’s a trick question, designed solely to throw you off your game. It ensures no work will be done today, because suddenly, you’re busy collecting maps.
Here are some of the headlines from my Medium home page:
- The One Routine Common to Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers
- The 4 Pillars of Extraordinary Bliss
- The Strange Productivity Secret of Successful People
- How Do You Build A Business Around Doing What You Love? Here’s The Answer
- 7 Things You Should Stop Doing NOW if You Want to be a Writer
That’s a fraction of the how-to plans we come across in a single day. Infinite wisdom awaits online; knowledge is democratized. A lot of people share a lot of great advice. Gym routines, reading tips, running guides, it’s all there. I know those lists. I make them myself from time to time. Some of them sometimes work. But you don’t need them.
Your brain sending you to find plans is a distraction. A fool’s errand. But the web is happy to comply. It’s one of the problems Ev is trying to address:
“The internet is amazingly well tuned to give you what you “want” — whether you want it or not. If you can’t look away from a car crash, it will surmise you want more car crashes and will create them for you. If you can’t stop eating junk food, it will serve you up a platter.”
The simplest version of the idea is more than enough for it to grow. If you want to be a dancer, all you need to do is dance. To lose weight, eat less, move more. For a design career, begin designing. Take the seed and water it. Let it unfold. In your mind. In your life. But that’s not how it works.
As they ride down the elevator, Cobb reveals to his mentee:
“I knew something was wrong with her. She just wouldn’t admit it. Eventually, she told me the truth. She was possessed by an idea. This one, very simple idea that changed everything. That our world wasn’t real. That she needed to wake up to come back to reality. That, in order to get back home, we had to kill ourselves.”
The Terror of Maplessness
The reason other people’s recipes are so tempting, not just to look at, but even to try and follow, is that they’re a perfect excuse to not really have to change. Seth Godin spells it out in Linchpin:
“Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do. The reasons are pretty obvious: If it’s someone else’s map, it’s not your fault if it doesn’t work out. If you’ve memorized the sales script I gave you and you don’t make the sale, who’s in trouble now? Not only does the map insulate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.”
As well-intended as the world’s suggestions might be, all you end up with if you readily take them is someone else’s point of view. That’s not what you want. That’s not real change. It only ends in frustration and blame.
That’s not what we want either. We want your point of view. We desperately need it. What do you want? What do you feel? What do you think? You know your flaws. Your strengths. You have ideas. What do you need a map for?
Cobb sits down at the table, next to his wife. But it’s all in his head. He’s talking to himself. A projection of her, to which he can finally confess.
“The idea that caused you to question your reality came from me.”
He turns back to his student.
“She had locked something away, something deep inside. A truth that she had once known, but chose to forget. She couldn’t break free. So I decided to search for it. I went deep into the recess of her mind and found that secret place. And I broke in and I planted an idea. A simple little idea that would change everything. That her world wasn’t real.”
The memory of Cobb’s wife looks down. She realizes.
“That death was the only escape.”
Waiting For a Train
There is only one answer to your mind’s devious questions: silence. When it prompts you to research, to make plans, to go out and find a map, stop.
- Stop reading Medium, Business Insider, Wikipedia, even stop reading books. Don’t read anything for a while.
- Stop watching Youtube videos, TED talks, TV, movies, anything at all.
- Screw what people say. Your best friend, your cousin, the hot guy or gal at work, your professor, your boss, even your parents. Especially your parents.
- Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do if none of the above sources had told you to. Show up at work, do your job, but outside of that, don’t let anyone sell you on what you “have to do.”
If you can’t live without a map, you might one day pay the price.
Cobb opens the door. The hotel room is trashed. The window open. As he peers through the blowing curtain, he sees his wife, sitting on the sill of the opposite building.
“Sweetheart, what are you doing?”
“Just step back inside, alright? Just step back inside now, come on.”
“No. I’m going to jump and you’re coming with me.”
She forces him out onto the ledge, then closes her eyes.
“You’re waiting for a train.”
“Mal, goddamn it! Don’t do this!”
“A train that will take you far away.”
“James and Phillipa are waiting for you!”
“You know where you hope this train will take you.”
“They’re waiting for us!”
“But you can’t know for sure.”
“Mal, look at me!”
“But it doesn’t matter.”
“Mal, goddamn it!”
Her hands leave the ledge.
“Because you’ll be together.”
The Power of Imagination
Cobb got so lost in the plan that he drove his wife insane. He gave her an idea she was too afraid to let go, so he couldn’t stop her from jumping off the ledge. But you can. Because you’re not battling someone else’s insanity. You’re fighting against your own mind. Don’t let Resistance win. Hold on to that first thought. Protect your simple ideas. You owe it to yourself. And to all of us.
Life has always pushed us not to think, but since the internet it’s a lot worse. It’s a made up place and it consists of nothing but opinions. Dare to close your laptop. To throw your smartphone out the window. Or turn it off. Don’t allow these devices to plant rogue ideas. Stop.
Stop looking for maps. For things to blame. Think for yourself. A lot can happen in six months. You wouldn’t be rich, successful, super smart or more popular. But you’d be you.
Maybe that’s the real task of the mind. Maybe that’s inception.